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Synecdoche, New York
(Charlie Kaufman, USA)
By Andrew Tracy
For those who haven’t yet read the latest issue of the online magazine Rouge, proceed there to witness Kent Jones, in his article “Can Movies Think?”, knocking out another support beam from the already rickety edifice of critical self-justification. Jones’ brief, pinpoint-accurate dissection of the “moral-aesthetic hierarchies” of film criticism handily removes one of the trustiest implements in a critic’s toolbox: the contention that the creator of a film one doesn’t care for is not only a poor or flawed filmmaker but an opportunist, a fraud, a cheat, or combinations thereof. While one should not yet discount the insights that can be gleaned by way of righteous wrath, there is no question that this moralizing impulse, when applied in its most frequent mode of spittle-flecked rejection, not only halts any possible conversation dead but may well not even touch upon the core of the film’s failure. How then does one go about tearing down a film which one regards with precious little rancour—which is in all likelihood, and to all appearances, thoroughly genuine in its impulses even as it is ultimately worthless as art?
The neat trick of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (and witness how the language of deviousness enters almost unbidden) is that it forces both foes and supporters to argue in terms of moral and philosophical enormities rather than on the more modest scales of craft and construction. Explicitly questing for the absolute through the self, Kaufman’s bid for full name-above-title auteurdom after his hosannah-laden screenwriting run hoists his schmucky screen alter egos to new heights (or lows) of nakedness in the person of Caden Cottard—embodied, naturally, by Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose continued willingness to present himself as repulsively as possible has become a kind of reverse narcissism. A Schenectady-based theatre director beset by a failing marriage (to Catherine Keener, again essaying a typical Kaufmanesque shrew), a decaying body, and a growing conviction in the fruitlessness of his aesthetic pursuits, Cottard is inexplicably awarded a MacArthur grant and sets out to literally recreate the totality of his life through his art. Over a period of decades Cottard builds a miniature metropolis in an enormous, abandoned warehouse to replicate his surroundings and peoples it with a cast of thousands, including actual friends, lovers, and relations (including Samantha Morton’s winsome receptionist, Michelle Williams’ worshipful acolyte, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s treacherously Sapphic sister-in-law) and the actors cast to play them “onstage” (yielding appearances by Tom Noonan, Emily Watson, and Ellen Burstyn among others). Neither cohort maintains distance from the other, thus creating new sets of relationships and entanglements that continue to prevent the magnum opus from ever being “finished,” except, of course, by death.
It is the open and unapologetic solipsism of Kaufman’s concoction, the creation of a world that quite literally revolves around his immiserated onscreen vicar, which cuts off at the knees any moral challenge to this enervating whirligig. Those who have challenged the film because of the narrowness of Kaufman’s vision of life, his elision of joy, pleasure, and inspiration in favour of despair, humiliation, and inevitable decay, criticize Kaufman’s temperament rather than the thing he has wrought. No artist, after all, is obliged to talk about that which does not interest him, and Kaufman is thoroughly entitled to examine the dark and scuttering underbelly of existence to the exclusion of all else. Yet this is the second trap of the moral-aesthetic assault. By narrowing the argument to questioning the validity of Kaufman’s artistic vision—as similar jousts took place last year over the “nihilism” of No Country For Old Men or the anti-religious/anti-capitalist screed to which some reduced There Will Be Blood—one leaves aside the question of how that vision is conveyed through such miscellany as dialogue, performance, mise-en-scene, and so forth, and jumps straight into metaphysics. Synecdoche’s pretensions to universality are thus legitimated by the structure of conversation around it, absent any consideration of its construction; or if some consideration is given, it’s usually in the form of vague charges that Kaufman’s directorial capability is not equal to Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry, though this rather negligible lack of cinematic fluidity is only a surface indication of its far more significant conceptual flaws.
Doubtless those many supporters who have been genuinely moved by the film could plausibly find in it that inexhaustible quality which Jones ascribes to those “thinking films” that surpass the intentions of their creator and “engender [an] ever-expanding consciousness of the parameters of human experience…Each new viewing or reading or listening incit[ing] ever more delicate sensations of longing, irony, terror and exhilaration, perhaps leading to a greater fortitude for viewers/readers/listeners in their on-going contemplation of life and its mysteries.” Yet while Synecdoche’s succession of blending and blurring identities, laden with bathetic monologues relentlessly pressing the absolute equanimity of human experience, is supposed to encompass us all in its ever widening circumference, it’s this striving for scope that undermines any depth to Kaufman’s relentlessly mediocre vision. While Buñuel has been frequently invoked as a reference point, a less obvious and more glumly northern comparison might yield a more telling parallel. Bergman’s equally vaunting ambition in probing the texture of human experience was always undertaken by way of extremity rather than enormity. Unlike Caden Cottard, Bergman’s artists/neurotics are used as vessels of discovery not because they are ultimately reducible to common human clay, but because their unique sensitivities and fragilities can be pushed to the outer limits of endurance, to that boundary which reveals the capabilities, both creative and destructive, inherent in human potential. Where Bergman’s introspection pushes outward, Kaufman’s attempt at grand statement falls flat on its own diminutive premises.
If any charge of disingenuousness need be levelled at Kaufman, let us at least grant that it’s of an inadvertent variety. In striving to push to the furthest reaches of those parameters of experience, it is the natural impulse of so many American filmmakers to package that experience and inscribe meaning upon its surface; to relentlessly indicate their ambition in tackling totality head-on rather than shading and deepening those precise slivers of experience which can lead to a sensation of the universal. Perhaps the defining traits of serious American cinema—or at least that kind which attracts name actors, a goodly amount of studio money, and instant critical recognition—are an emphasis on impact and scale which stands in vast disproportion to the relentlessly quotidian, half-formed emotional life which underlies it; and an unbending, cut-and-dried determinism of meaning in stark contrast to the suppleness and ingenuity of method. Though lacking the assertive grandeur of last year’s Coen and Anderson joints, this latest work of American “genius” has the same endlessly reiterative pattern within the same expansive structure, its predetermined intentions never changing even as it inflates to literally apocalyptic dimensions.
Nevertheless, the fascination this kind of filmmaking exerts is a genuine one. The sheer bigness, the ambition absent any precise goal, the eager grasping after enormity retains a certain exhilarating charge even as the films themselves dwindle into academic homilies. Far from limning the parameters of lived experience, what Synecdoche evokes is the hopeful spectre of the encyclopaedic film, a cinematic Ulysses that can encompass both the quotidian and the cosmic, instantly relatable yet philosophically immense. But as Jones reminds us, a work of such magnitude entails a certain losing of the creator in the process—a necessity that is hard to reconcile with the proprietary aesthetics that dominate American filmmaking. Like so many of his peers, Kaufman is principally out to impress rather than explore, an imperative that runs so deep it can’t even be characterized as bad faith. It’s the methods and reflexes of American “seriousness,” rather than malevolent intentions or any original sin, which keep so much of its would-be grandiosity ultimately Lilliputian when stacked up against the best of world cinema. Far from thinking for itself, Synecdoche’s calculatedly extrapolating fantasia has already had its thinking done for it; and in limiting the admiration of its supporters to a mere description of its evident surfaces, it’s done the thinking for them as well.